Notes of a Word-Watcher

By Lewis Thomas

Little, Brown. 197 pp. $17.95

Now here is a quirky little volume indeed. It seems that Lewis Thomas, scientist-savant and author of such best-selling books as "The Medusa and the Snail," has for 20 years been musing about the origins and meanings of words -- looking them up, tracing their derivations and mutations, and pondering the role of language as the glue that holds the human race together.

The professional biologist became the amateur philologist who here delivers, more or less at random, 40 brief essays about his discovery that "the mark of being human is speech and the ready use of metaphor, and the evolutionary development of this trait is told, in part, by the history of words."

The result is not so much a book in the traditional sense as a series of dinner-table conversations in which Thomas expounds and his guest, the reader, is alternately fascinated and irritated. Thomas is by turns playful and irascible, hopeful and gloomy, his mood set by a psychic response to the group of words he is thinking about at the moment. He asserts that "every word, no exceptions, is an enchantment, a wonder, a marvel," but he is selective in his response to these thrills.

It gives him pleasure, for example, to meditate upon the word "conversation," which originally meant "the behavior of people, their manner of life together." Thomas observes, "One of the nicest things about us is our pleasure in simply being together, talking to each other about one thing or another but not necessarily talking at all, just there in amiable arrangement, a conversation."

But he dislikes "gorgeous" -- a "cheap word" that comes from the same root as goiter -- and is put off by words and sentences that begin with O: "obnoxious," "obloquy," "obsequious," "obsess." "I have never encountered a sentence beginning with O, or Oh!, that I gladly went on to read, not in verse, not in prose," he writes. This is not profound, only self-indulgent. Perhaps Thomas has never read Matthew Arnold's "The Scholar Gipsy": "O born in days when wits were fresh and clear,/ and life ran gaily as the sparkling Thames."

Thomas finds an almost childlike delight in the discovery that Sanskrit and most languages with which we are familiar -- English, Latin and its derivatives, the Germanic and Slavic groups -- have a common ancestor in Indo-European and that "despite the distance of time, many of the Indo-European words in everyday use six thousand or more years ago are surprisingly similar to their remote descendants in modern English, looking and sounding much like the same words spoken with a heavy foreign accent."

Rummaging around in the modern-day languages and their ancestors, he finds some pearls. Rectitude, reckon and reckless have a common root, the Indo-European reg, meaning moving in a straight line, leading, ruling. The Indo-European swad, meaning pleasant, survives as sweet.

But these interesting tidbits are nearly outweighed by unfocused mini-essays about such mundane topics as his grandson's toilet training, pedestrian traffic in New York and the evils of the exclamation point. Any careful writer would agree with Thomas that words should make their own point, unadorned by emphatic punctuation, but his observation that "the words should be crafted to stand on their own, not forced to jump up and down by an exclamation point like a Toyota salesman on TV," is neither original nor felicitously expressed.

The most provocative chapter deals with the role of mathematics as the only universal language, holding out the uplifting possibility that in the future, as our comprehension expands, "the extremities of today's physical science, the calculations of the cosmological and particle physicists, will be understood in detail by all reasonably educated citizens of the world."

Thomas writes of a time when algebra was illegal, the use of Arabic numerals forbidden. He recounts the derivation, and the significance, of the zero. He communes with Alfred North Whitehead and Tobias Dantzig. And in playing games with the number series devised by Fibonacci, Thomas invites his readers to speculate on the strange correlation between the dimensions of the Parthenon and the spiral of seeds in the sunflower. This chapter by itself makes the book worth reading.

Thomas W. Lippman, a Washington Post reporter, was editor of The Washington Post Deskbook on Style.